Schoolchildren in England are lagging behind those from the Far East in maths and science, despite pulling head of other European nations, according to a international study.
Pupils from countries including Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea continue to outrank the rest of the world in the report.
Ministers admitted English schools had to make the subjects more appealing to catch up to the top-performing countries.
But they insisted the gap was being narrowed as pupils pulled ahead of those in elsewhere in Europe.
According to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss), English 10 and 14-year-olds achieved consistently better results than Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy. Pupils also outperformed those from other developed nations - including Australia and the United States - in every area.
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said: "These results show the gap is closing between us and some of the high-performing Pacific Rim countries. We have much to learn from their success and will continue to look closely at the education systems in the best of the best Asian economies.
"Our teenagers are leading Europe and teachers can be really proud of our position in maths and science."
But critics said it still represented a modest return on the billion pounds spent every year teaching the core subjects.
Among primary school pupils, science standards have largely stalled and in maths England was overtaken by Kazakhstan.
And other top-performing nations including Finland - which normally tops the tables - Canada and Belgium were not included in the league table.
The study also suggests fewer children in England enjoy the subjects at all ages than in previous years.
Michael Gove, Conservative shadow schools secretary, said: "This report shows that we are in the global second division for education with Asia pulling further and further ahead. Parents will be worried that our maths performance is behind that of Kazakhstan."
As part of the study, led by academics from Boston College in the United Stated, more than 400,000 pupils aged 10 and 14 sat independent tests in 60 countries. Results in maths and science were used to compile a series of league tables.
The report, which is compiled every four years, showed England had improved in almost every area compared to 2004.
Primary pupils jumped from 10th to 7th in maths, but fell slightly from 5th to 7th in science.
Among 14-year-olds, England's maths ranking soared from 18th to 7th and in science it jumped from 7th to 5th.
By comparison, Scotland - the only other British nation taking part - was ranked below average in every area, apart from primary school science.
England's high ranking comes despite failure in an alternative league table published last year.
In that study, 15-year-olds slumped in both mathematics and science.
Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, insisted last year's test was more focused on the application of knowledge, while the latest study concentrated on more traditional elements, such as geometry and algebra in maths.
It raises fears that pupils are skilled in basic sums but lack the ability to apply subjects to every day situations.
(By Graeme Paton, Education Editor Last Updated: 10:22PM GMT 09 Dec 2008)